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Forget the oil lobby: Farmers may curb climate talks


Farmers in Europe are up in arms over plans to introduce new caps on pollutants tied to meat and dairy farming.

European politicians are set to vote on emissions curbs Wednesday that will create new targets for ammonia and methane — two gasses closely linked to animals used in meat and dairy farms.

Farm lobbyists including the European Dairy Association (EDA) and Copa-Cogeca, a European farming cooperative, have openly opposed the directive, saying it would force farmers to cut production levels, shift farming to countries outside the European Union, and ultimately curb growth.

Istvan Kadar Photography | Getty Images

"It's an unnecessary burden when markets are already not so pleasant," Helene Simonin-Rosenheimer, the EDA's director of food, environment and health told CNBC in a phone interview. Her organization currently estimates that dairy production would have to be cut by 7.6 to 9.1 percent in order to satisfy emissions targets.

Copa-Cogeca policy advisor Evangelos Koumentakos told CNBC, "in order to satisfy demand, production would have to take place elsewhere, in third countries (nations outside the EU), where we know the environmental regimes aren't even close to what we have here."

This will be Europe's first attempt to directly curb methane emissions. The amendment to the National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive is asking for a 33 percent cut in EU methane emissions by 2030. The proposal also sets a 6 percent curb on ammonia emissions until 2020, to be followed by a 27 percent cut from 2030.

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Global livestock accounts for 14.5 percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). About 44 percent of all livestock emissions are in the form of methane — which is a common byproduct of the digestive processes of cows and other ruminants like sheep.

Animal manure is also associated with ammonia, a gas which European scientists say contributed to the Black Forest dieback in Europe in the 1980s. The EU's agricultural sector accounted for 94 percent of the region's total ammonia emissions in 2010, according to Eurostat.

‘Blackmail’ by farmers

It's undoubtedly an ambitious target, but activists including the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), an umbrella group representing 140 citizens' groups across the EU, say it's time for farmers to start pulling their weight.

"(Farmers) have managed to get away with a lot," Sebastien Pant, a spokesperson for the EEB told CNBC via telephone.

"I'd like someone to explain to me why it's OK to exempt them from emissions but not anyone else. Why don't we start doing it for the auto industry or combustion? I think it's absolutely essential that everyone do their part."

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He said it's unlikely that farmers would pack up and leave the EU if the NEC Directive was implemented, saying the threat amounted to blackmail.

Copa-Cogeca claims Europe's agricultural sector has already managed to reduce methane by over 30 percent and ammonia by 27 percent since 1990, through efforts like targeted fertilizing. However, Koumentakos said that despite developments in animal breeding and feed additives, technology could only go so far, adding that the necessary upfront investments were also not currently possible.

Farmers argue that methane will now be double-regulated: both under the NEC, and the existing Kyoto Protocol. The latter was originally adopted in 1997, is linked to a United Nations treaty, and lists methane as one of six greenhouse gases to be curbed in order to meet overall carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. This allows countries to choose which gases to cut, and doesn't necessarily require any level of methane curbs.

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"We need to make sure that European agriculture remains competitive, but what is also clear is that there are ways to address both the viability in economic terms and also the sustainability in environmental and social issues," Koumentakos said.

But, the EEB explained that there could be some respite for smaller farms, explaining that EU member states had flexibility in which size and type of farm to focus on.

"It's about intensive farming, those which have the big industrial farms that do most of the polluting. They're against it and are lobbying very hard," Pant told CNBC.

Members of European Parliament are set to vote on the legislation Wednesday afternoon before moving through a ministers' decision later this year. The directive could be signed into EU law as soon as March 2016.